Medical marijuana bill expected to pass House; Senate uncertain

Reps. Jason Nemes and John Sims Jr. presented the medical marijuana bill, HB 136, in the House Judiciary Committee. (Photo from Legislative Public Information Office)

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A medical-marijuana bill described by supporters as one of the tightest in the nation is out of committee and is expected to pass the state House. The Senate is another matter.

“This is a question for the Senate,” Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, told reporters after the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill. “It’s going to pass the House; I have no doubt about it.”

House Bill 136 , with a committee substitute, passed Feb. 12 by a vote of 17-1-1, with Rep. Joseph Fisher, R-Fort Thomas, passing. Fisher had expressed concern about people driving under the influence of marijuana and how this would be effectively managed.

Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, was the lone no vote. Moser, who has consistently said she would like to see more evidence-based research on medical marijuana that includes guidelines for prescribing, called the medical-marijuana laws in other states a “popular national social experiment.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, who has long been the key obstacle to the bill in the Senate, reiterated Feb. 12 that he thought there could be a “path forward” for this bill in the Senate, though he said they haven’t talked about this bill yet. (Later in the day, Nemes said he had a long, encouraging conversation with Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer.)

Stivers said that while he recognized that there are some real medical benefits to it, he said he wished the federal government would conduct a three-tier, double-blind study so that people would know how it really needs to be used.

House Concurrent Resolution 5, sponsored by Rep. Danny Bentley, R-Russell, asks the federal government to expedite research on the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana. It has passed out of the House and has been assigned to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

“It’s a balancing test of: Do the goods outweigh the bads?” Stivers said.

Kentucky would be the 34th state, plus the District of Columbia, with legalized medical marijuana. So far, only 11 states and D.C. have legalized it for recreational use. A recent poll shows that 90 percent of Kentucky adults favor legalizing medical marijuana, or cannabis.

The latest version of the bill removed a list of conditions that could be treated with cannabis or its psychoactive ingredient, THC, and says any list of conditions will be determined by a panel of doctors and advisers established under the state health department.

Dr. Jeffrey Block, an anesthesiologist with the University of Miami, offered a short list of conditions for which there is conclusive or substantial evidence that THC is an effective treatment, including intolerable nausea or vomiting, intractable epilepsy, intractable chronic pain and intolerable muscle spasm, particularly from multiple sclerosis.

The bill wouldn’t allow patients to smoke marijuana. Nemes said this concession was necessary to get votes, even though smoking is usually the quickest and most efficient way to get the drug into the system. It also does not allow colorful packaging or formulations that would be attractive to children.

Nemes said 13.5 percent of the money that comes in from the program would be used to help those who can’t afford it get medical marijuana, since insurance won’t cover it. Another 13.5% would go to law enforcement. The bill also includes an opt-in or opt-out provision for local governments.

Eric Crawford, an advocate for medical marijuana, told the group that an automobile accident in 1994 had left him paralyzed, and he used marijuana instead of opioids for his constant pain and muscle spasms.

“Narcotics make me out of my mind. They make me high and unable to function at all,” he said. “Cannabis allows me to get out of bed and make the most of my life.”

Crawford said if HB 136 became law, “I would not be a criminal. I would not have to live in fear. I would not have to lay awake at night worrying about law enforcement coming to my home. I would not have to stress about going to jail, or losing my home, work or freedom.”

Joe Trigg, a 30-year veteran with 15 deployments, said, “Thousands of other veterans and myself would benefit from this bill.” But he also said, “House Bill 136 can do better and should do better.”

First, he said because it is written so tightly, it will likely result in higher prices and a larger black market. He also suggested that the rules against smoking and limiting growing are a result of lobbying, and said that rules on how it can be grown do not benefit Kentucky farmers.

Kent Ostrander of the Family Foundation of Kentucky, urged caution and called for more evidence-based research, saying, “We cannot use anecdotal based assumptions” when it comes to medications.

The bill would make marijuana legal medicine in Kentucky on Jan. 1, 2021.

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